Politicians: don’t mess with Shoreditch

This morning’s Observer column on David Cameron’s obsession with ‘Tech City’.

Politicians are desperately keen on “innovation” for a variety of reasons. They think it’s cool and progressive and puts them on the right side of history. It promises to bring growth and prosperity either to their constituency, or to marginal ones, or to both. It impresses the prime minister. It gives rise to endless photo-opportunities. And so on.

In pursuing this obsession, politicians have two kinds of tool at their disposal. The first is area-focused and involves planning laws, tax-breaks, subsidies and other fiscal wheezes. The second approach is company-centred and aims to create incentives that will persuade technology entrepreneurs to carry out this mysterious activity called “innovation”.

There are a number of problems with this. The first is that most politicians – at least in Britain – couldn’t run a bath, never mind a company. The vast majority of MPs have no idea what it’s like to meet a monthly payroll, and only a tiny percentage (only one out of 650, according to a recent study) have experience of advanced research. So they have no idea of what’s involved in technology start-ups, which is why they have as much credibility with entrepreneurs as the aforementioned maiden aunts have with yobs.

The consequence is that most government policy in the field of technology is a combination of blissful ignorance and wishful thinking…